One Blade at a Time

by Jeffrey B. Roth   photography by Phil Grout

The first question that comes to mind when talking to Rob “Deker” Dekerbaum, 40, is how does a computer security consultant, and the co-owner of a computer security business, become a custom knife maker, who ends up as a contestant on a bladed weapons making competition reality television series?

In 2016, Deker, a native of Silver Spring, Md., who moved to the Hanover area 12 years ago, appeared on Season 2 of “Forged in Fire,” a History Channel reality competition series. “Highly-skilled bladed weapon makers go head-to-head in an elimination challenge to create some of history’s most iconic, edged weapons,” notes the History Channel website. While Deker did not win, he made it to the semi-finals… not bad for a computer nerd.

Back to the original question—how did a computer security consultant become a knife maker? In my “day job,” I’m a computer security consultant to the automotive industry. Before I moved to the Hanover area…I had been doing my ordinary computer stuff and I had just spent six months working on a contract and when I was done the customer had pretty much exactly what they had when I started, except now it was located elsewhere and faster. I was a little frustrated by not having anything that I thought was tangible to show for it after all that effort. I decided I needed to start doing something where I would have that tangible feeling of success.

So how did you satisfy that need? I sort of knew I wanted to work with metal, but I wasn’t sure how. I fooled around making chain mail and stuff like that, and I went and took a blacksmithing class with them, (Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland), really enjoyed it; thought it was great; but I was living in a suburban townshouse and couldn’t do anything with it. A few years later, in 2005, we moved up this way, which put me about 15 minutes from the Guild and the (Carroll County) Farm Museum, so I was taking more classes and I had more space up here to build a shop. I took the knifemaking class at the Guild and that one sort of really caught my attention. About 10 to 12 years later, I’m the guy teaching that class.

What fascinates you about knife making? I had very good instructors, who became very good friends and I continue to work with them. Additionally, there’s metalworking, there’s woodworking, there’s making something that is a useful tool that the average person can connect with and they have some kind of story about a knife in their lives—like Grandpa’s knife or Dad’s old hunting knife.

Is it science or art or a combination? My favorite part of knifemaking is with just fire, a piece of steel and a dim room, I can move atoms around in specific ways, and show you the actual point at which atoms are moving. It’s fascinating. It’s exciting. I learned there was science involved with the metallurgy, the heat treatment and all of that, which appealed to my ADHD brain. Decades of reverse engineering complex things have changed the way I think about a lot of things. I have a tendency to dive very deep into technical details, and I bring that same curiosity and engineering rigor into my workshop with me. Once I got into the pattern welding, sometimes called Damascus steel, which has a lot of history and is infinite in possibilities. That appealed to engineering side of my brain I use for work.

Tell me how your engineering side led you to attempt to reproduce the patterns on a cache of ancient swords found in an archaeological dig in Denmark. Last year I reverse engineered a steel palmette pattern (Illerup Ådal Swords) pictured in archaeological finds from Denmark that date back to 200-500AD. There was a specific motif in some of the pieces that greatly resembled palm trees, and I hadn’t seen any recreations of it, so when a friend approached me about how to recreate it, I got very interested. After some thought and experimentation, I believe that I was the first person to successfully recreate this pattern since antiquity. Sure, there’s still a little tuning to do, but there were specific processes used that most everybody would tell you are purely modern practices.

How did you end up on “Forged in Fire?” I heard of the show before the first season from a friend of mine, who is actually one of the judges. When they were casting for the first season, he said “you should come and try out,” but the show’s concept wasn’t then clear to me. He’s an ABS master bladesmith and I thought I would be competing against him, and I said: “no way dude.” I watched the first season, then I understood how the competition worked. When they sent out the casting call for Season 2, I said “fine, I’ll throw my name into the hat.” They selected me to be on the last episode of Season 2.

It was a bit interesting. About four years prior to doing the show, I hadn’t done any work in my shop. Once I applied for the show, for a month period, I un-mothballed my shop to practice in case I was selected.

How did you do on the show? I went on the show and for me the whole reason was to see if I could compete with guys who were doing this full time…to see if I had what it took. I went through the first and second set of challenges and did pretty well. In the final two challenges, I had to come back to my shop for five days and make a tabar, a sort of a near-Eastern battle axe. The unique thing about it is that it has a metal handle. The metal handle construction was a little frustrating. I had a few things go wrong, so I was rushed to finish it.

It was a big double-bladed axe that had a spike coming out of the top of it and that spike was a separate piece from the head of the axe, which was separate from the handle, and all three had to fit together, so I decided to rivet them to go with the historically plausible construction.

It did very, very well in the tests they did, until the final test, where they mounted the axe in a pneumatic rig and whacked it against a steel shield on a barrel. When it came back to that second hit on the barrel, because there was a weak point in the stem of that spike, it broke off.

So I didn’t win, but I definitely didn’t lose.

For more information on Robert “Deker” Dekelbaum and Deker Knives and Damascus, visit www.dekerknives.com.

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Author: HM

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